Steven David is a Professor of International Relations and the Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education at Johns Hopkins University.
This interview is a coordinated effort between the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy and the Alexander Hamilton Society.
What do you think the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal next week will look like?
I think the deal next week will be a framework. Iran will be limited to around 6,000 centrifuges. There will probably be some limitations on the quality of centrifuges they can develop. There will be more intrusive inspections. The duration of the agreement will probably be ten years, if we get a good one 15 years. The material they have in the country, the lightly and medium-enriched uranium, will either be sent out of the country or adulterated in some form to make it less likely to be able to produce nuclear weapons. So that would be the basic outline. And in return sanctions would begin to be lifted but they would not all be lifted at once.
The sanctions will be lifted over time over the course of the agreement?
The sanctions will go away slowly provided the Iranians continue to keep their end of the bargain.
What is the best case scenario for the agreement?
“At the end of the day, the real way to end the Iranian nuclear threat is to have a different Iranian leadership.”
The best case is that the agreement would inhibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that the economic openness and benefits that Iran gets from the elimination of sanctions would empower people and groups in Iran to produce a more moderate regime. At the end of the day, the real way to end the Iranian nuclear threat is to have a different Iranian leadership, one that is more moderate, less religiously driven, and more open to western views. If an Iran that is part of the globalized world is more likely to become that, then that would be the best thing that could happen.
You say in one of your works that it is the weakness of states, as opposed to their strength, that is threatening. How does Iran look through that lens, especially with regards to the nuclear threat that it faces?
First let me clarify what I meant by “the weakness of states.” I think some of the biggest problems in the world today are not countries who choose to deliberately attack one another, but countries who fall apart and spread inadvertent harm or sometimes advertent harm beyond their borders. If you look at some of the problems we are facing today in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, it’s not countries attacking one another, its countries falling apart and chaos and instability spreading in ways that affect the region and affect the United States as well. Now Iran, especially in Middle Eastern terms, is a reasonably strong state. It’s a real country with a real history and a real civilization. I would prefer to see a different kind of leadership there, and I think most Iranians feel the same way.
Do you think that there is a special reason to be afraid of instability in Iran compared to instability in other parts of the Middle East?
My concern is the time period in between the instability and the actual toppling of the government. If the leadership possessed nuclear weapons, and they feel they have nothing to lose, that they’re about to lose power and probably their lives, they may push the nuclear trigger, probably against Israel as a parting shot for posterity. A kind of “well we’re going down, let’s take this horrible Jewish state with us.”
If Iran develops the capability to launch a nuclear attack, what should the United States response be?
If Iran starts breaking out and it looks like they’re violating the treaty and making a dash towards nuclear weapons, then America does have to consider a military strike. Because Iran would be saying that they’re violating a treaty and developing the capability to do something that treaty was supposed to prevent. I kind of don’t think the Iranians would do that. My bigger fear is that they would, instead of breaking out in a visible and demonstrable way, have secret facilities somewhere that are not under anyone’s supervision that are spitting out this highly enriched uranium. Or maybe over time gradually hiding some of the highly enriched uranium.
It seemed from your talk that you have some reservations about the rational-actor theory, at least in how it applies to Iran. Can you talk about those reservations?
I do have reservations, but let me be clear about what I don’t disagree with. I believe the Iranian leaders are rational, I don’t believe they’re driven by religious fanaticism to do suicidal behavior. I think they’re pragmatic. I think they’re sensitive to costs. All of that is true. But a lot can happen to undermine deterrence even with rational leaders. You can have accidents, you can have miscalculations, you can have unauthorized launches, you can have the toppling of a leadership that has nothing to lose. How do you deter someone that knows he’s about to die? What threat can you pose against him or her to dissuade them from doing something they’re capable of doing?
This seems like something that might apply as an argument against the rational-actor theory in many contexts. What do the realists in international relations have to say about what you just said?
The realists will say different things but I think what most of them would say is that I’m worrying too much. That states that have nuclear weapons will do whatever is necessary to prevent accidents or miscalculations or unauthorized launches, that these things have not happened in the past with nuclear armed states nor will they happen in the future. And that nuclear weapons will impose a kind of prudence and caution on countries not to let these things occur. But I’m just not convinced of that. Let’s say they’re probably right, that there is a 90% chance that all will be well. Y’know, a 10% probability that your country will be destroyed, that’s a lot.
The Islamic State has semi-recently entered the spotlight in the American media. How do you think that that development will affect the intricacies of the Iranian nuclear talks?
I don’t think it’s going to have a major effect on the deal with Iran. In some ways it may facilitate the deal if only if America and Iran are indirectly cooperating with one another in that both of us see ISIS as a threat. You have American airstrikes and Iranian supported militias both fighting against the same adversary. Although we don’t coordinate with one another, that brings us closer together and may make the conclusion of the agreement a bit easier. But I wouldn’t want to put too much on that. I think ISIS is a bit of a sideshow to this and is not central to the negotiations themselves.
Do you think that ISIS and the mutual threat that is poses to Iran and the United States could lead to greater cooperation between Iran and the United States than it is already?
Especially if the nuclear agreement is concluded. In this sense I think ISIS can have a bigger impact after the agreement is concluded than before. If the agreement is concluded and American-Iranian relations warm, the fact that we have this common adversary will make them warm all the more.
Do you think that there is hope for easing of tensions between Israel and Iran over the course of the nuclear agreement?
Anything is possible. Ten or 15 years is a long time. If Iran’s opening up to a more globalized world, a world where it’s not sanctioned economically, and becomes a more moderate state, and maybe if Israel becomes more moderate in its treatment of the Palestinians, then you could perhaps see an alignment. Bear in mind that Israel and Iran were very close under the Shah. Iran was a de facto ally of Israel. They have a lot in common; they are both non-Arab states in an Arab dominated hostile region. So there’s a certain realist logic for them to get together.
If this treaty happens next week and at some point during the treaty, Iran walks away from the treaty, what is the United States response?
A lot has to do with the circumstances. If Iran openly walked away from the treaty, my guess and hope would be that there would be a re-imposition of economic sanctions, maybe even worse than before. And the message would be to Iran, all of this newly gained prosperity you got through trading oil and through investment, is going to be gone. And the hope and expectation is that they won’t be willing to give all that up just to develop nuclear weapons.
How do you think the people of Iran will feel about the upcoming deal?
I think they will be supportive. They have suffered under economic sanctions. They’re standard of living has been hurt. The notion that they could sell oil again, and that people could invest in their country again, that they will be able to buy goods that were previously much more expensive, will push them to see that they can have better lives for themselves. Some of the more extreme groups in Iran may say that the government is selling out to the imperialists, that the deal is an unfair restraint of Iranian sovereignty.
Do you think we are learning anything in Iran that we can apply to similar struggles today or similar struggles in the future?
Well, you learn every time you are involved in these kinds of things, but every situation is unique. It may well be that if this proves successful it may have overlapping effects that may induce other countries to either give up their nuclear weapons or persuade countries not to develop them in the first place in exchange for economic inducements and that kind of thing. But you don’t want to get into a one-size-fits-all mentality.
Let’s talk about Israel. Recently there has been mounting tensions between the United States and Israel. How do you see the US-Israel relationship changing over the course of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Well that’s a long time, especially for the Middle East. I think that there are fundamental ties that bind America to Israel. Israel provides us some strategic support, it’s the one country in the region that’s not going to turn against us because of a change in government. You can’t say the same for other countries in the region. Israel is going to be pro-American no matter what. It is the most powerful military force in the area, the most powerful economic force in the area, and those are all strategic benefits. It provides us good intelligence. More importantly I think common values bind America to Israel. Israel is to be sure an imperfect country, but it’s a democracy with a free and vibrant press, real elections, a Supreme Court, it’s a nation of immigrants trying to prosper in a tough environment. I think Americans relate to these things. If you look at public opinion polls, in America, maybe not in college campuses, people overwhelmingly support Israel. That’s not going to change because of what’s going on today.
But that said, relations are not good. Obama and Netanyahu hate one another, and that doesn’t help. Netanyahu made some unfortunate and despicable comments in order to get elected, and that grates understandably on this country. His speech to Congress in opposition to the deal without getting a presidential invitation was a gratuitous poke in the eye. And there are fundamental differences too. America thinks that, and I am in agreement with this, that Israel is not doing everything it should and can do, to facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state. I think Israel has to do more, and it is understandable that America would put pressure on Israel to do that.
Israel won’t support any potential deal next week, right?
Any deal that comes out of this would be criticized by the Israelis.
So if it looks to the Israelis like what they need to do is to take military action against Iran, you mentioned that Europe would be antsy about that, and that the leadership of most Middle Eastern countries would publicly condemn but privately celebrate that. How do you think the United States would react?
So much depends on the circumstances. If Israel could demonstrate to the United States that Iran was unequivocally moving towards a nuclear weapon and they felt like they had no choice but to stop it, the American reaction might be more restrained, just like it was pretty much restrained when Israel went against Iraq and Syria. If it’s out of the blue, If Iranians have signed a treaty and are adhering to the treaty, and the Israelis say that it is still not enough, then America would probably be very angry and take action to punish Israel. America might restrict aid, stop protecting Israel in the United Nations and other international forums, and certainly verbally lambast Israel.
If the deal is made and everything is going as planned between the United States and Iran, and Iran is following the deal, do you think Israel will have enough of a motivation to strike Iran?
“In the end I don’t think the Israelis will strike.”
That’s a very good question. If I had to bet, I think they would not. If the treaty is concluded, I think the Israelis will yell and bluster and complain, but in the end I don’t think the Israelis will strike. The military challenges are really very great. A lot of Iran’s centrifuges are in a hollowed out mountain. It would be very difficult for the Israelis, militarily, to destroy these targets and to know if they’ve destroyed them. I think maybe a couple of years ago they could have, but not anymore.
Before we end, is there anything else you’d like to say on this topic that you think the wonderful community of Claremont would benefit from hearing?
“I’m concerned with rising anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feeling, especially on campuses throughout the country … When it reaches the point where you call into question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, it’s unsettling.”
This is a bit off-topic, but I must say that I’m concerned with rising anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feeling, especially on campuses throughout the country. I don’t know the specifics with Claremont, and it certainly seems to me legitimate for people to be critical of Israel. I’m critical of Israel myself. But when the criticism becomes so extreme and so one-sided, it really does sound like anti-Semitism. When it reaches the point where you call into question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, it’s unsettling. I really hope that individuals can separate out their feelings for what Israel is doing and their feelings for their fellow Jewish students. That’s something I’m concerned about and I’m a lot older than the students, needless to say, but I’ve never seen things as bad as they are now. Things are especially bad in Europe and also on college campuses. I hope better and sounder minds will prevail on these issues.